So, I have one more class to finish grading before I can lay fall 2014 to rest, but the news about the US finally calling time out on Cold War diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba just dropped, and I find myself both in need of a reason to procrastinate and a measured sense of pause in the elation I should be experiencing about Cuba (finally) being opened to US markets. I figure it could be productive to put the two to work together and rectify this whole month since I’ve posted business.
Here’s the thing about this historic and long overdue reversal in a half-century-old policy that has crippled Cuba in significant ways: it smacks too much to me of history repeating itself. Much as it can be argued that the emancipation of slaves came came about largely for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, I cannot yet think about this as uncomplicated good news. Why? I know too much about the history of US intervention in the Caribbean. I’m about to try to write a second book about it. Watch out for it in another um, many years.
In the meantime, let’s glance back to 1823 as a defining moment in US foreign policy in the Caribbean, to help explain why I’m giving today’s announcement about relations with Cuba major ambivalent side-eye. If you were paying attention in your history classes, you’d remember that in 1823, President James Monroe stuck a little tidbit in an address to the nation that would fundamentally change US relations with the Caribbean, or more specifically, US relations with other global powers who had interests in the Caribbean. This is the part that frustrates me whenever one of these historical moments in capitalist relations between the US and the Caribbean region occur: it is hardly ever about the nations themselves, but rather about the US responding to another global power exerting influence in what it sees as its hemisphere.
But I digress with the quibbling over who/what this is really about and this whole interests protecting business. I’ll get back to that, but first a refresher on the Monroe Doctrine:
With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European Power we have not interfered, and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence, and maintained it, and whose independence we have on great consideration and on just principles acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European Power, in any other light than as a manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
The generous reading of what would become know as the Monroe Doctrine is that the US assumed a fraternal interest in its closest southern neighbors, warning European nations that it would not tolerate anymore colonization or puppet monarchs in its hemisphere. I don’t know about you, but I live in the America whose justice system enables the summary execution of some citizens, and as such, I do not have time or patience for that kind of Pollyanna generosity. President Monroe, in the above, begins by acknowledging the sovereign right of Europeans over existing colonies, vowing not to interfere with those territories, but he then defends the sovereignty of independent nations by ironically asserting the United States’ sovereignty in a paternalistic gesture that replaces the individual sovereignty of independent nations of the western side of the Atlantic – in particular where matters of outside influence are concerned.
So in this context, when France invaded Mexico in 1865 (with Spain and England on a joint militarized debt collecting expedition) and remained after the other two powers had left, the Monroe Doctrine was invoked to exert diplomatic and military pressure in support of Mexican President Benito Juárez. This support enabled Juárez to lead a successful revolt against the Emperor Maximilian, who had been placed on the throne by the French government. Because, given colonial history – Napoleonic wars and wot not – who wants those particular European colonial powers all up in the region where you are trying to establish an imperialistic hegemony of your own? Yay protecting Mexican sovereignty! Or, yay, keeping those European competitors out of the Western Hemisphere!
Almost 40 years later, European creditors started to threaten armed debt collection in the region again, and whoop whoop! Monroe Doctrine. President Roosevelt declared the right of the US to use an “international police power” to curb such “chronic wrongdoing.” Marines were sent to Santa Domingo in 1904, Nicaragua in 1911, and Haiti in 1915. Occupying troops remained in Haiti for fourteen years, all to resoundingly declare, “Back off Europe. We run dis!” Or alternately, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Isn’t it great how well things turned out in Haiti?
I would like to think these interventions – easily read as protective gestures in the name of national sovereignty – ultimately created stable, truly sovereign, and autonomous Caribbean nations, rather than simply rewriting colonial scripts to install the US firmly as the region’s imperial overlord. What they reveal, however, is a pattern of US interest in Caribbean nations whenever another power begins to exert influence that poses challenges to its own hegemony the region.
Today, there are three such nations at work in the Caribbean: Venezuela, Brazil, and China. I’ll talk about the latter two specifically, because they are the most obviously connected to today’s announcement about Cuba. Brazil and China have invested significant amounts of capital across the Caribbean region in infrastructure, like highways and deep-water ports. At the beginning of 2014, Brazil began financing a $957m overhaul of the Mariel port in Cuba. The deep-water port is part of a larger plan that involves opening free trade zones in Cuba to attract foreign investment. When I first heard this story in January, I thought to myself, with Brazil getting a jump on investments and trade in Cuba, the days of the US embargo are numbered. The Mariel port and accompanying free zone projects aim to take advantage of the planned expansion of the Panama Canal, by providing the best facilities in the region for giant vessels. According to María Vitória Bernase of the Havana-based Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association,
The United States has no bays in the south that are so deep, so this will be good for them. Cuba is the key to the Gulf [of Mexico]. There is no other bay in the region with the depth of Mariel. We will develop it as a transport hub and a warehouse centre.
Good for the US with its no deep southern bays. Right. The role played by Mariel in Cuba’s modern history is a truly interesting one that makes it particularly apropos that this is the site for these contemporary economic developments and the parallel role they have played in forcing US foreign policy. Mariel was where Russian naval vessels docked to unload the nuclear warheads that led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In 1980, the port gave its name to the Mariel Boatlift – an exodus of 120,000 Cubans to the US. But again, I digress.
The Brazilians aren’t the only ones who want to get in on this particular shipping game in the northern Caribbean. Also early this year, the Jamaican government embarked on an immensely unpopular and secretive deal for the China Harbor Engineering Company to build a mega-freighter seaport and accompanying logistics hub right in the middle of one of the island’s largest natural protected areas. The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until last year when the government backtracked on the proposal, signifying a shady change of plans. I don’t want to minimize the impact of the environmental devastation that will result once this deal is done. Neither do I want to proceed without mentioning that the China Harbor Engineering Company is a part of an international conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its fraud and corruption sanctioning policy. Read about the environmental implications of this horrendous deal here and the sins of this shady-ass conglomerate as condemned by the World Bank here.
For my purposes now, though, what I want to do is put the announcement of new diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba in the context of a history of US foreign policy in the Caribbean that is more often than not enacted in response to the presence of competing powers within a geographical space whose nations have long been treated as US “protectorates.” I also want to put this history in context with other contemporary events occurring in the region–with regard to international shipping, in particular — with what it will mean to US control of trade corridors in the Western Hemisphere if Brazilian and Chinese companies set up mega-freight outposts designed to facilitate the reconfiguring of licit and illicit shipping routes.
To be clear, I am all for lifting the trade embargo with Cuba, but I know too much history to view this as simply an altruistic gesture on the part of the Obama administration. While I know I am in the United States and should expect coverage from a US perspective, I am bothered that so much of the early coverage is, shortsightedly, only about this as early campaign fodder for the 2016 election. I am suspicious of what the US wants from Cuba now and what it will cost Cubans in the long and short term. I am also watching the developments in the shipping world, because as Jamaica Kincaid says in A Small Place, “there is a world of something in this. But I can’t go into it right now.”